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The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White (written 1941; published 1977) 138 p.

T.H. White’s Arthurian saga The Once And Future King has a troubled publication history. The final volume, The Book of Merlyn, was submitted to his publishers in 1941 but was rejected as part of a collected volume due to wartime paper rationing. Undeterred, White took two major sequences in it – in which Merlyn transforms Arthur into an ant and then a goose – and inserted them into the first book, The Sword in the Stone. The Book of Merlyn was thus unincluded in later collected editions of the series, until the manuscript was discovered amongst White’s papers after his death in 1964. It was included in future collected editions from 1977 onwards, but – in order to present everything as accurately as possible – retains the ant and the goose sequences in The Sword in the Stone, while also later repeating them in The Book of Merlyn. (This is particularly notable because the goose sequence is probably the most famous and well-loved thing White ever wrote.)

It’s a bit less confusing when you’ve read it all the way through, but the funny thing is that those sequences feel a lot more like they belong in the first book, when Arthur was a child being transformed into animals all the time as part of his education with Merlyn, rather than the final book, where Arthur is whisked away on the night before the great battle with Mordred to discuss human nature and warfare with Merlyn and his council of wise animals. The vast majority of The Book of Merlyn takes place in the badger’s cosy underground den, which has the air of a cluttered library or gentleman’s parlour, as White (through Merlyn) expounds his philosophy about the wretched, violent nature of man.

Understanding T.H. White goes a long way towards understanding The Once and Future King, and my edition has an afterword discussing how the book came about. White was an unhappy man for much of his life: an alcoholic, a closeted homosexual, and a pacifist in a time of just war. When World War II was looming in 1939, he relocated himself to neutral Ireland and spent the rest of the war there as a conscientious objector. At this stage The Sword in the Stone had already been published, but it’s clear that the outbreak of WWII greatly influenced the rest of the series. “I have suddenly discovered that… the central theme to Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote to war,” White wrote to his publisher. The Book of Merlyn expresses this more clearly than any other volume in the series; along with The Sword in the Stone, it effectively bookends the series, as Merlyn compares mankind to various animals – only now, with Arthur as an adult, Merlyn is no longer teaching a pupil but rather discussing an intractable problem with an equal, to the king’s increasing weariness and despair.

The Book of Merlyn ultimately presents no conclusion on the matter, no coherent moral or philosophy, because White himself didn’t have one. He was a confused man, a man full of doubt, a man aghast at the horrors of the world, a man who tried to make sense of it all as best he could. He was a writer, in other words, who moulded his love of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur into his own unique, funny, beautiful epic, a meditation on the failures and foibles of the human race.

I liked The Book of Merlyn a lot; it’s probably my favourite out of the series. Despite a current of nihilism and despair, White brought back all the elements that made The Sword in the Stone such a success, and the result is a sweet and affecting tale of a man who tried to do his best. I didn’t always enjoy The Once and Future King, but The Book of Merlyn is a strong conclusion which serves the series well. And as for the series overall? I may not have always liked it, I may have been bored and frustrated with it at times, but I can nonetheless appreciate it objectively as a powerful and important work of English fantasy.

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He suddenly felt the intense sad loveliness of being as being, apart from right or wrong: that, indeed, the mere fact of being was the ultimate right. He began to love the land under him with a fierce longing, not because it was good or bad, but because it was: because of the shadows of the corn stocks on a golden evening; because the sheep’s tails would rattle when they ran, and the lambs, sucking, would revolve their tails in little eddies; because the clouds in daylight would surge it into light and shade; because the squadrons of green and golden plover, worming in pasture fields, would advance in short, unanimous charges, head to wind; because the spinsterish herons, who keep their hair up with fish bones according to David Garnett, would fall down in a faint if a boy could stalk them and shout before he was seen; because the smoke from homesteads was a blue beard straying into heaven; because the stars were brighter in puddles than in the sky; because there were puddles, and leaky gutters, and dung hills with poppies on them; because the salmon in the rivers suddenly leaped and fell; because the chestnut buds, in the balmy wind of spring, would jump out of their twigs like jacks-in-boxes, or like little spectres holding up green hands to scare him; because the jackdaws, building, would hang in the air with branches in their mouths, more beautiful than any ark-returning dove; because, in the moonlight there below, God’s greatest blessing to the world was stretched, the silver gift of sleep.

– From “The Once and Future King,” by T.H. White

On the ABC today:

Australia is a “nation of victims” with citizens unable to properly protect themselves with weapons, pro-gun crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm has said.

The Liberal Democrat said he wanted a calm, measured discussion about the right to “practical self-defence” in the wake of the deadly Sydney siege.

The Senator goes on to claim that: “What happened in that cafe would have been most unlikely to have occurred in Florida, Texas, or Vermont, or Alaska in America, or perhaps even Switzerland as well.”

I stayed up until 3:00am London time watching ABC24’s online feed of the Sydney cafe siege with a mix of unease and fascination, and followed it further at work the next day as it unbelievably dragged on for hours and hours. I also watched with contempt as a number of Americans with a political axe to grind descended on the Twitter hashtag and proclaimed that such a thing would never happen in America, with its prevalent gun ownership; a sentiment one of our politicians has decided to adopt, even before funerals are held for the two Sydneysiders who were murdered.

Put aside, for a moment, the notion that America is never visited by mass shootings or terrorist attacks. At the same time the siege was unfolding in Sydney, a gunman in Pennsylvania killed three times as many people. Rarely does the world provide such a stark, timely example that perhaps people should reconsider the logic of their beliefs.

The concept that armed citizens are the best way to stop gun violence has become a popular argument in America in recent years, despite the fact that in the extensive annals of American spree shootings, it has literally never happened. Someone came close during a shooting in Las Vegas earlier this year, but was instead killed by one of the perpetrators.

I’m slightly off track when it comes to Australia’s gun laws, which have broad community support, whatever libertarians like Leyonhjelm say. I believe people have a right, within reason, to own weapons for self-defence; the concept of the state removing that right makes me uneasy. But not as uneasy as I would be to live in a country in which 30 people die from firearms violence every day.

Since drastically tightening gun ownership laws after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Australia has had no further mass shootings. It’s worth mentioning, however, that in 2002 a mentally disturbed student entered Monash University and shot and killed two students (this limited death toll is apparently why the incident is not generally considered a “massacre” or “mass shooting.”) He was prevented from killing any more because a lecturer and some students tackled him. He had six handguns; the Virginia Tech shooter only had two. If it wasn’t for the bravery and quick-thinking of those in the room with him, the incident could have been far worse.

I mention this not to say that our gun laws are ineffectual or useless or that they should be repealed, but as an example of how random mass shootings are – as we all know, the worst in history didn’t take place in the US at all, but in Norway, a bastion of liberal, left-wing gun control. There are more factors involved than the accessibility of firearms, and while we can control them to some extent, we can never truly prevent them.

But gun control isn’t about mass shootings – or at least, it shouldn’t be. The issue is always viewed through that big, lurid prism of body counts and police stand-offs, which make global headlines and bring the pundits into the studios to talk about how this might be a catalyst for change. But the vast majority of America’s gun violence victims don’t go down at the hands of a crazed mass shooter. They die in ones and twos, on street corners in black neighbourhoods, in botched armed robberies, in domestic disputes or arguments that turn violent.

Those are the facts of the matter. Senator Leyonhjelm doesn’t want “a calm and measured discussion” any more than the Americans on Twitter who saw a hostage crisis unfolding, attached it to one of the only things they know about Australia, and decided it was a good time to push their own political agenda. Leyonhjelm is a libertarian purist who bases his beliefs on abstract philosophy rather than real-world facts; what he wants is guns back in people’s hands, irrelevant of the plain statistics which prove that Australia’s gun laws have saved lives.

Like so many Americans, Leyonhjelm wishes the statistics told a different story. But they don’t.

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